By 11pm last Sunday, it was clear that Spain’s opposition conservative People’s party (PP) had comprehensively routed the ruling socialists in the regional and municipal elections that had followed two weeks of ugly and unedifying campaigning.
The PP had snatched no fewer than six regions and some of Spain’s biggest cities from the socialists’ grasp, much to the delight of the supporters who had descended, flag-waving and jubilant, on the conservatives’ HQ on Génova Street in central Madrid.
Despite the boisterous cheering from outside, however, one person who had arrived at Génova three hours earlier was not punching the air, roaring in triumph or demanding high-fives from underlings. Then again, few who know Alberto Núñez Feijóo would expect such emotional incontinence from the man who assumed the PP leadership just over a year ago.
“He’s a very restrained person when it comes to his personal reactions,” says a veteran adviser who was with Feijóo on Sunday night. “He doesn’t let himself get down when things don’t go well and he isn’t exultant when things go the way he wants them to. I’ve been with him through a lot of triumphs and I’ve never seen him go over the top about them.”
Feijóo’s inner circle believes it is precisely those qualities of equanimity and moderation that have helped the 61-year-old reconfigure the PP after a turbulent few years and made him the favourite to win the snap general election announced by Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, hours after his Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) was humbled at the polls.
Unlike his erratic, avowedly rightwing predecessor, Pablo Casado, who dragged the PP away from the centre ground in an unsuccessful effort to stop its voters being seduced by the far-right Vox party, Feijóo is a fixture of the more progressive wing of the centre-right. So much so, in fact, that he has even admitted voting for the PSOE’s Felipe González in the 1982 election that marked the end of Spain’s post-Franco transition to democracy.
Much has been made of his calm, understated demeanour – especially in contrast to the slick, telegenic and sometimes unpredictable charms of Sánchez. Feijóo’s camp readily acknowledges that he is a reflective individual who could be viewed as very much a product of his home region of Galicia, of which he was president between 2009 and last year. According to the ancient but enduring cliche, Galicians are very, very difficult to read. The seasoned adviser – who mentions the old joke about how hard it can be to determine whether a Galician is going up the stairs or coming down them – argues Feijóo is too thoughtful to fit naturally into a world of Twitter, soundbites and gotchas.
“He’s not comfortable with that … and he doesn’t think politics is a tweet,” they note, approvingly. And yet his team also likes to position Feijóo as something of a modern outlier within his own very traditional, affluent party: a man from very humble beginnings who helped his grandparents in their small shop, worked to support his family when his father lost his job, and who became a father himself at the age of 55 after meeting a woman who already had a child from a previous relationship.
Despite his low-key image, Feijóo has not always managed to avoid scandal. The publication 10 years ago of photographs showing him on holiday in the mid-1990s with a friend who was later convicted of drug trafficking led to calls for him to step down as Galicia’s president. But he survived the affair, insisting he had had no reason to suspect his friend, Marcial Dorado, was involved in anything illegal, and claiming he had broken off contact with Dorado as soon as he was charged with criminal offences.
A decade on, the epithet most readily associated with Feijóo is “safe pair of hands” – a description that was also sometimes applied to Mariano Rajoy, a fellow Galician who was PP prime minister between 2011 and 2018, when Sánchez used a vote of no confidence to turf his corruption-mired administration out of office.
“Feijóo’s advantage is that he’s a steady pair of hands,” says Antonio Barroso, an analyst at the political consultancy Teneo. “That’s what he is and that’s what he was in Galicia. He’s been able to unite the party and post a very good result in the elections – and power is a very good glue for political parties.”
Unlike Casado, he adds, Feijóo is not a polarising figure within his own party, nor for the electorate. “He can definitely appeal to centre-right voters, but even some people who have gone to Vox might be attracted to support Feijóo.”
The problem is that the far-right party appears to hold Feijóo’s future in its hands. Strong as the PP’s showing was last Sunday, no poll shows the party winning anything like enough seats in July to be able to govern on its own. The PP will also need to rely on deals with Vox to help it govern many of the regions it has just won. But any PP-Vox regional coalition governments would come at a cost as they would serve to confirm Sánchez’s argument that the conservatives are happy to ally themselves with the far right for the sake of power.
The prime minister is hoping the spectre of Vox in government will help mobilise leftwing and centrist voters on a massive scale. This week, he said Spain was not immune to the political trends that swept Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to power. He said Spaniards would have to decide whether they want a prime minister “on the side of Biden or of Trump, on the side of Lula or of Bolsonaro”.
While Feijóo has refused to explicitly rule out any deals with Vox come 23 July, his team is adamant that the newly centre-right PP will not be swayed by their competitors on the far right, stressing the conservatives will continue to defend equality policies, guarantee Spain’s system of autonomous regional government, and maintain the country’s fiercely pro-European outlook.
The coming weeks will reveal whether Feijóo is the moderate he claims to be – or whether he is a more pragmatic and opportunistic political animal. For the currently bullish PP, however, he is very much the right leader at the right time.
“He’s a tried-and-tested product,” says the adviser. “For good or for ill, we all know what Feijóo’s like.”